Humans have been visiting Cumberland Caverns for hundreds of years. We have documentation of visitation to portions of our cave dating back to at least 1810, and likely Native visitors also enjoyed the natural AC of the underground. However, the cave has been called home by many different species of wildlife long before there were any of us humans here to visit. The wildlife, therefore, are the official rulers of the cave. They set the rules of how to visit with the lowest impact on their livelihoods. Then why do so many animals not follow their own rules?
In middle school biology you probably learned about the different classes of animals. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and so on. They probably taught you that amphibians are a class of animal that starts out living in the water as larval forms, and when they grow into adulthood they leave the water to join other animal classes on land. Then why is this mother salamander in our cave guarding her eggs OUTSIDE of water, on the cave walls? Do we need to call the Amphibian Child Protection Services?
It turns out not ALL amphibians follow their own rules. The Plethodon genus of salamanders, for example, never go through an aquatic larval stage. We have at least two Plethodon species that call our cave home, and they can be seen around this time of year guarding their clutches of eggs. The mother will stay with these eggs until they hatch into tiny little versions of herself, ready to tackle the world-eat-world ecosystem of cave life. In fact, these salamanders are often seen near Adventure tour entrances to our cave. If you ever take the Higgenbotham Hollow adventure tour you will pass by the “Salamander Hotel”, a huge stalagmite with folds of drapery where salamanders like to live and lay their eggs. This is why our guides will take their time and tell you to watch your step. These little salamanders are TINY when they first emerge. We all follow the Cavers Creed here: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but carefully placed footprints, kill nothing but time”.
Salamanders aren’t the only ones breaking the rules. We have multiple species of crayfish in our cave. Some are crayfish that would naturally live in surface streams but accidentally find themselves living in our cave. These crayfish start to lose their pigment over time, becoming lighter and lighter as they grow, shedding their exoskeletons. There are other species of crayfish that live deep in our cave that can ONLY live in the cave. These Cave-specific crayfish are completely white and wouldn’t survive on the surface. This is the difference between a troglophile (a crayfish that LOVES the cave, but could life on the surface too) versus a troglobite (a crayfish that can ONLY live in the cave).
Here’s another odd one: When you think of animals that call a cave home what is the FIRST that pops in your mind? Probably a BAT, right? Well, bats are actually trogloxenes! In other words, they only VISIT caves, they can’t live in a cave all their life. The various species that call Cumberland Caverns their temporary home or shelter are all forest species of bats. During the Spring, Summer and Fall they are flying around eating TONS of insects, helping out our farmers by eating pests, and saving us from mosquitos. During these seasons they live in the forest, hiding under the bark of shaggy-barked trees barns, eaves of houses, bat boxes and more. During the winter is when they come back to the cave and hibernate in the safe, relatively-warm 56* cave temperature. It’s a great way to sleep away the winter when it’s too cold and none of your food (insects) are available. Does this mean you won’t see any bats in the cave during the Summer? NOPE! That’s right, even the BATS don’t follow standard “Bat Rules”. Sometimes they come into the cave in the early pre-dawn hours to find a save space to sleep away the day. So, while it is not expected to see a bat during these seasons keep an eye out! You never know!
Keep in mind there are quite a few different bat species out there. There are bats in the SW United States that DO use caves during the Summer and they migrate south for the winter. There are other bats like the Eastern Red Bat who NEVER live in caves, but spend their entire lives out in the forest hiding in dried leaves…. and even in TN there are certain caves that certain species of bats find to be perfect to raise their young, and they set up important maternity colonies or even Summer bachelor roosts!
Some of these simplifications are used to teach us when we are younger. It’s kind of like learning the colors. As a young kid we learn the colors “Blue”, “Green”, “Yellow”. Then as we get older we start to understand there are MORE names for these colors. There are all sorts of BLUE colors, like “Cobalt”, “Indigo”, “Cerulean”, “Cyan” and so on! The further we take our education, the more nuances we learn about the subject. That’s why we rely on people who are experts in the field to explain these things to us. They’ve been studying these things for years and we only received a 2nd grade education on the matter. Besides that, who wrote these “Wildlife Rules” anyway?
See, it turns out wildlife DOES follow the rules, it’s just us humans that are confused. We try to oversimplify things to make it easier to understand…but the natural world is much more complex than we understand. The rules of “Amphibians are born in water” and “Bats only hibernate in caves” and “White crayfish are blind” aren’t the rules set forth by wildlife, they are “rules” us humans made up to try to understand the world. As our technology evolves and we observe more and more of the world around us, we are going to continue to learn more about the world we *thought* we already knew.
If you haven’t visited Cumberland Caverns in a while it might be time! Since we are learning so much about our cave and the wildlife that call it home, we have introduced ALL NEW tours. Our Discovery Walking Tour is all-new, and we now go into more depth about these amazing animals and geology. If history is more your thing, you hear all about our history on the Cardwell Mountain History Tour. The Cardwell tour is a great way to see the cave if you don’t want to climb all those stairs on the Discovery, or maybe you are short on time. We have TWELVE different options to tour our cave, everything from an easy stroll along lighted passages to crawling on your belly through squeezes and mud, so FIND YOUR CAVE TOUR HERE.